Tag Archives: Charlie Hebdo

Charlie Hebdo haunts the media

When Islamist gunmen killed 10 journalists and two policemen in January at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine firebombed in 2011 for its irreverent cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, media reaction to the massacre immediately after was best summed up by the headline of an article in Reason magazine: “I’m all for free speech and murder is wrong, but…”

In much of the media the “but” trumped admiration and respect for the slain journalists’ insistence that religions, along with other institutions and ideas, can and should be mocked and laughed at.

Now, five months and three Charlie Hebdo-related events later, the media remain as divided about the meaning of the slaughter in Paris as they were in January. Too, media are as uncomfortable in dealing with and justifying their coverage and stance expressed in their reports and analyses.

Typical of the hostility toward Hebdo and its band of satirists were the sentiments of National Public Radio’s former ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos in an interview with the Washington Examiner. He labeled the magazine’s Muhammad cartoons “intentionally provocative form of hate speech that are undeserving of protection,” and slammed First Amendment “fundamentalists” who mistakenly suggest that the United States has “absolute freedom of the press.”

He added that he didn’t know “if American courts would find much of what Charlie Hebdo does to be hate speech unprotected by the Constitution,” unaware that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. As Eugene Volokh, professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law pointed out on his blog (the Volokh Conspiracy) in the Washington Post: “hateful ideas are as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas.”

There are narrow exceptions, which primarily relate to speech leading to immediate incitement or creating a hostile workplace environment, but “hate speech” has no “fixed legal meaning under U.S. law,” Volokh notes.

None of that stopped a barrage of media attacks on Hebdo, calling the killing of its staff members not excusable or justifiable, but perhaps quite “understandable.” As blogger Kitty Striker wrote, Hebdo’s “racist, homophobic language is not satire. I think it’s abusive, and I think it punches down, harshly and often.”

Facts rarely interfered with the hits on Hebdo. A piece on the Daily Beast pointed out what French scholars discovered; namely that “in the last decade just seven of Charlie Hebdo’s 523 covers dealt with Islam.” And as one of the magazine’s supporters, Dominique Sopo, Togolese president of SOS-Racism (France’s most celebrated anti-racism organization) tried to explain: “Every week, half of Charlie Hebdo was against racism, against anti-Semitism, against anti-Muslim hatred.”

What the magazine was really about was lost in the hullaballoo and outrage over the Muhammad cartoons, or it was dismissed, as on the left-wing website Counterpunch as an “extended adolescent revolt.”

Not surprisingly, among U.S. media, the New York Times, CNN, NBC, MSNBC and the Associated Press refused to publish any of the Muhammad cartoons. The Times said it does not publish materials that “offend the religious sensibilities” of its readers, but did not inform them which of their sensibilities, if any, it was OK to offend.

Media organizations publishing one or several of the cartoons included the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Fox News, Bloomberg, HuffingtonPost, Daily Beast and the New York Post.

Our paper of record is unwilling or unable to understand what M.G. Oprea, writing in the Federalist magazine, understands so well: “Freedom of expression is worthless if it excludes speech that offends someone.”

Coverage of Charlie Hebdo, Michael Cavna observed in the Washington Post, “pulled and polarized media on opposite sides of a kinetic dividing line.” Five months after the slaughter in Paris, posthumous publication of a book by Charlie Hebdo’s editor, exposed that dividing line once again.

On April 16 the New York Times ran a story on its website about “Open Letter to the Fraudsters of Islamophobia Who Play Into Racists’ Hands,” Stephane Charbonnier’s book (only in French, so far) and headlined the story “Book by Slain Charlie Hebdo Editor Argues Islam Is not Exempt From Ridicule.”

The headline apparently did not sit well with some editors, fearful of giving offense, so the headline of the same story in next day’s print edition read: “With Posthumous Book, Charlie Hebdo Editor Proves Defiant in Death.”  Excerpts from the book, which ran in the weekly newsmagazine L ‘Obs, show him more thoughtful than defiant: “The problem is neither the Quran nor the Bible,” he wrote, “sleep-inducing, incoherent and badly written novels. The problem is the faithful, who read the holy books like instructions for assembling Ikea shelves.”

The media, in America and abroad, chose to ignore his broadside at all fundamentalist faith and blasted away at his attacks on those of his targets who misunderstood or deliberately misstated the magazine’s satire: “Charlie Hebdo editor attacks liberals from the grave,” shouted London’s Times. Britain’s Telegraph saw the book as a “posthumous attack on left-wing French intellectuals.” And our own NPR saw “Islamophobia” as the book’s main target of attack.

Much of the coverage ignored one target, the one exposed by Matt Welch on April 17 in Reason: “He (Charbonnier) pillories the unquestioning use of the term ‘Islamophobia’ by some journalists either out of laziness or commercial interest.”  The Washington Post stood out for also exploring the book’s condemnation of “journalists, politicians and others, whom he accused of using fear of Islam for their own purposes.”  The paper earned plaudits for quoting Chardonnier’s words: “The problem is not religions, but those who practice and distort them.”

Reading the excerpts available might have brought journalists closer to understanding what Hebdo’s satire, following is about. Charlie Hebdo was seen in France as  “the scourge of post-fascist (French) political party Front National, the enemy of Papists, cheerful anti-racist activist, fellow-traveler of the French Communist party, staunch agitator for Palestine…” as readers of the publication understand and informed those journalists (as those from the Daily Beast) willing to listen.

Most media did not bother to reach for and attain such an understanding. So when PEN, the international organization of writers, chose to grant its “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” to Charlie Hebdo (in New York on May 5) the media focused its attention on the dissenters within PEN.

“A Literary Honoree Splits Allies,” the New York Times proclaimed, unwilling to decide whether or not the magazine was “a misunderstood honoree, or perhaps just a bigoted outlet.” The “bigoted outlet” fans made most of the noise and so got most of the attention.

Publications printed their protests and outcries, which made much better copy than the calm defenses of the magazine and its contributions to social and political satire.

The letter signed initially by 145 PEN members claimed that Charlie Hebdo publishes “selectively offensive material that intensifies the anti-Islam…anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

Individual members were even nastier. Novelist Francine Prose called Hebdo’s cartoons “gleefully racist” and suggested that they “conveniently feed into a larger political narrative of white Europeans killed by Muslim extremists, which is not the case.” Only a few (the Daily Beast standing tall among them) dared to point out that the families of the 10 Hebdo staffers and two police officers as well as the four customers assassinated in a kosher market, might beg to differ.

Prose continued her assault on the victims by claiming that she saw no difference in Joseph Goebbels’ anti-Semitic propaganda “spewing eliminationist rhetoric” and Hebdo’s “mocking religious radicals.” Similarly, novelist Deborah Eisenberg asked PEN if it would “grant the award retroactively to Julius Streicher’s Der Stuermer?” (The Nazi magazine that featured cartoons- of Jews as blood-sucking and blond –maiden- chasing sub-humans.)

No traditional media outlet asked viewers or readers to compare cartoons from that publication with any from Charlie Hebdo, which The New Yorker described as “blatantly, roughly sexual and not designed to endear them to Jews or Christians,” but not as viscerally racist or dehumanizing. Hebdo’s cartoons, cited by the magazine, showed the Pope kissing a member of the Vatican guard and an Orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi soldier.

Survivor of the Paris massacre, Hebdo’s film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret, who missed the January 7 editorial meeting because he overslept, was invited to the PEN ceremony. When confronted with the comments of some dissenting PEN members and their comparisons of his publication’s cartoons to Nazi propaganda, shrugged and said: “They don’t really know what they’re talking about.”

It surprised few, then, that the May 2 attempted attack on an exhibit of a “Draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas,  received the usual and by now tired same-old coverage. The two gunmen, killed by a local traffic officer wanted to shout “The prophet is avenged,” as one killer did in Paris over the body of a policeman, but their path to the attack was by now an old story. The mother of one slain gunman said her son “was raised in a normal American fashion.”

A few media blamed the event’s organizer, blogger Pamela Geller, for exercising “bad judgment” and inviting a violent response. And that’s what had already been said back in 2011, when Islamists firebombed the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

The botched shooting will, appropriately enough, be used by Abilene Christian University’s journalism department as a teaching tool, KTXS-TV in Abilene reported in a brief bulletin.

There is much to find out about the media’s unease with the meaning of free speech — specifically which restrictions or constraints on the First Amendment the media accept or reject.

The media might want to reflect on what it means that nine years ago six in 10 Americans felt it was irresponsible for newspapers to run cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, but  that today six in 10 respondents say they are OK with papers doing just that.

The media might want to ask themselves if they are willing to “accept a gag order by a religion that can’t stand criticism or mockery.”

And they might want to ask themselves if the “negative liberty” granted by the First Amendment allows exceptions for legally irrelevant categories such as “bad taste” or “bad judgment.”

And finally, they might want to think about how their answers, and their conduct based on those answers, touch on the survival of an open and free society and laws designed to keep it open and free.

How many Muslim readers hath the New York Times?

A note on the paper’s decision not to show the Charlie Hebdo cover after the attack

The decision of The New York Times not to depict the cover of Charlie Hebdo after ten of the French magazine’s journalists had been murdered by Islamic terrorists has drawn much deserved criticism in the United States and abroad, in comments from the editorial page editor of the Denver Post to a reporter’s charge of “cowardice” in the German newsweekly DER SPIEGEL.

Within the ranks of Times editors the decision not to depict the cover, which showed a tearful Prophet Muhammad holding up a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, was defended by Executive Editor Dean Baquet:

“My first most important job is to serve the readers of The New York Times, and a big chunk of the readers of The New York Times are people who would be offended by showing satire of the Prophet Muhammad…That reader is a guy who lives in Brooklyn and is Islamic and has a family and is devout and just happens to find that insulting.”

Some might be surprised that among Brooklyn’s Muslim population (3.73% or 95,000 out of 2.5 million) there can be found a “big chunk” of the Times’ readership. Among them would be the paper’s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan who voiced her disagreement with Baquet’s decision and observed:

“The cartoon itself, while it may disturb the sensibilities of a small percentage of Times readers, is neither shocking nor gratuitously offensive.”

It’s got to be either that “big chunk” of Times readers potentially offended by the cover, or just a “small percentage” among them whose sensibilities would have been disturbed. Curious minds do indeed want to know and may not be satisfied with a Bill Clintonian explanation: depends on what your definitions of “big chunk” and “small percentage” are.

Danziger on Charlie Hebdo

I knew George Wolinski, but not closely. He saw the humor in everything, and probably even the black humor in the disaster than befell his last day on earth. If he got to meet with the murderers in heaven or wherever he might have pointed out that for all their expense and fear they accomplished nothing. They gave him a famous death rather than some waning, weakening thing, succumbing to Alzheimers. He might have written a note to be passed to God or Allah or whoever, saying something to the effect, look, these guy are idiots, make them work in the kitchen for a few years, that should do it.

Political cartoonists are heartened by stupidity in government especially the kind than is provided by politicians wrapped up in their own bull. We appreciate it more than most journalists when a candidate, especially for a re-election he or she does not merit, tries to deflect press attention from their abysmal records in office by lying and smiling to the voters. Paul Conrad, one of the deans of the cartooning field, working for the Los Angeles Times for many years, said that when Nixon resigned, “I wept.” Nixon has after all provided the Conrad family with bread and shelter for many years.

This perverse pleasure, which admittedly doesn’t seem to help the nation forward toward better government, still has a use. Prompted by some goofy or evil politician, a good cartoon can quickly show that we are not fooled. Editorialists temporize and try to answer their own questions, but the cartoons, if done right, are like an ice cube down the back of your shorts, uncomfortable and surprising, embarrassing and mortifying. Meant as a joke, but just a bit too harsh to forgive.

And too many ice cubes down too many shorts will result in a reaction, so a bit of judgment is needed.

Which is the problem with the Paris killings. Men like my colleague Wolinski didn’t believe in much of anything, certainly nothing religious. He and his editors were not just irreligious, they were anti-religious, and not just once in a while, but nearly every issue. They could not understand how anyone could take the claims of  religions seriously, and so they didn’t themselves. The practices of Islam, the proscriptions against most of the physically enjoyable parts of life, especially when you live among the best wine and the most intriguing women on earth, strike men like Wolinski as illogical at best and inhuman at worst. The Puritan ethic, the idea that to find anything more enjoyable than contemplation and worship of a Supreme Being, was to insult that Being. Fundmental Islam seemed to take that to the limit.

Should Charlie Hebdo have limited their insults to the Islamic faiths? Should they have looked for more intricate ways of amusing their readers at the expense of what they thought were stupid, irrational beliefs? Should they have, as a friend said, “stooped to subtlety”? Would their message been lost if the purposely and rather childishly insulting nature of their magazine had been tempered?

Curiously, here in the land of the free, political cartoonists are well used to self-control, if not self-censorship altogether. At the top of the list of subjects to be gentle about is religion. The American attitude is to let people alone in their minds, despite the hard charging right wing sections of the current GOP. And there is an American practicality in this. Barry Goldwater used to say that you can’t legislate morality, and he was righter than he thought. Force in almost any activity generates a counter force. Forced thinking doesn’t change the mind of anyone. Thus, reason most of us in the US, why try? Living a happy life despite attempts by others to prevent your enjoyment of it is the best response, and living well is the best revenge.

Until these murders, the satires on various faiths in Charlie Hebdo were pretty much without effect. The Jews were attacked and the paid no attention. The Catholic Church went about its archaic ceremonies unimpressed. If there was a difference in the radical Islamists it was that in France, they are poor and largely unemployed. And although there is no justification for the killings, there is an argument to be made that making immigration possible as the French have done to many peoples, and then treating immigrants poorly is bound to have a reaction.

So far the discussion and review of this bloody event has been to frame it as a freedom of expression issue. Well, it’s not that simple. Freedom is a wonderful idea, but reality has always trumped ideas. And the reality of human existence in these times is that a lot of people are crazy and believe insane things. And that there are a lot of guns and ammunition about.



Journalist imitates Sergeant Schultz: “I know Nozzink” about the Paris attacks

“It’s not the internet that is ailing journalism. We’re killing ourselves, thin in our coverage, and often intellectually lazy and shallow.”  – The Journalism Iconoclast

Right after the January 7 murderous attacks on the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” and a kosher supermarket in Paris, TV and internet commentators regaled or outraged us with immediate analyses of what these attacks might mean. Predictably enough, conservative pundits saw in them another attack on Western values by radical Islam while liberal and left ones emphasized the “blowback” element of Islamic rage against the West’s often violent interference in the politics and culture of Muslim countries.

Comments, lacking information about the attackers’ inspiration and motivation, were therefore mostly recycled hot air. But one internet journalist outdid many others in intellectual laziness and shallowness the Journalism Iconoclast decries. And that was the onetime Washington Post and MSNBC wunderkind Ezra Klein, now Editor in Chief of the VOX media website.

On the day of the attack Klein posted the following:

“These murders can’t be explained by a close reading of an editorial product (the Muhammad cartoons in ‘Charlie Hebdo’) and they needn’t be condemned on free speech grounds. They can only be explained by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil that almost no human beings anywhere ever do, and the condemnation doesn’t need to be any more complex than saying unprovoked mass slaughter is wrong.”

Unprovoked incuriosity and ignorance are wrong too, if not lethal, and Klein is guilty of both. How could a journalist, on the day of the Paris mass slaughter, immediately adopt a “Nothing to see here folks, now move along” stance when media had not even begun investigation of the Paris murderers and the path that led them to commit their “horrible” acts?

And how can an educated person (Klein earned a B.A. from UCLA in 2005) write that mass murder is an evil “almost no human beings anywhere ever do?” Is it really necessary to dispel his inane “ever” with pictures of skulls from Pol Pot’s killing fields, frozen corpses from Stalin’s gulags or piles of victims’ shoes from Hitler’s death camps? Is he not aware that the perpetrators of those slaughters were not “mad,” but followed the logic of a political ideology, as the Crusaders in the Middle Ages followed a religious one as they hacked up infidels—Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. (For a starter, I’d recommend Christopher Browning’s ground-breaking book “Ordinary Men,” which initiated historians’ focus on the role of “normal” Germans in the Holocaust, away from the “madness” of the bad and fanatical SS types as sole perpetrators.

But Klein insists, rather pedantically, that only “madness” can explain the Paris attacks. Two fine pieces of investigative journalism soon proved him wrong.  The first one was The New York Times’ front-page story on January 18, “From Scared Amateur to Paris Slaughterer.” In it readers leaned that by September 2004 the Kuachi brothers, Cherif and Said, “began going regularly to Mr. (Farid) Benyettou’s apartment to discuss the religious justifications for suicide attacks. There they talked about how to load a bomb into a truck and drive it into an American base.”  A decade later, they translated some of what they learned from their mentor into the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

A day later the German newsweekly DER SPIEGEL published on its English website a five-part report: “Terror from the Fringes: Searching for Answers into the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Attacks.” The work of ten reporters, the series asks three questions that expose the mind-numbing shallowness of Klein’s simplistic response: were the attackers angry young men? Was their anger fueled largely by problems within French society? And, were they fed a misguided interpretation of Islam? Without supplying definitive answers to any of the questions, the thoroughly researched article suggests that one explanation would not suffice to provide even fragments of answers.

Or, as might have been suggested to Klein, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but at other times it’s more .

In DER SPIEGEL readers found out that “radical Islamists and terrorists have for decades been especially active in France.” And that the the two young Kouachi brothers and their accomplice “as adolescents seemed quite normal and promising.” They also learned that Benyettou convinced them “that armed conflict was the right approach and touted the martyr’s death as a path to paradise.” Moreover, “he incited his followers to engage in jihad” and quoted holy texts and Muslim scholars.” Cherif Kouachi is quoted: “It helped to convince me.”

Had Klein waited to dismiss complex answers to a complex issue and history, he might not have reached for the “madness” defense but concluded with a sentence often attributed to Voltaire: “Where people believe absurdities, they commit atrocities.”

He might also, should he touch this topic again, read the 1990 essay in The Atlantic by Bernard Lewis: “The Root of Muslim Rage.”  Its subtitle is “Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified.” But if he’s too busy, here’s Lewis:

“It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less a clash of civilizations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Lewis’s stance is not an invitation to Islamophobia. To the contrary, Lewis insists that “It is critically important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but equally irrational reaction against that rival.”

Klein, who promotes “explanatory journalism,” is capable of explaining all that to his readers. For his sake and for journalism’s, let’s hope he’ll come back to the explanatory journalism he advocates but abandoned in his VOX posting on the Paris attacks.